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How Fox News is trying to guide its viewers away from Trump

Traffic on Sixth Avenue passes by advertisements featuring Fox News personalities on March 13, 2019 in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images (Drew Angerer/Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty)
6 min

As of writing, there has been no use of the phrase “pizza parlor” on the Fox News website in the past week.

At any other point, that would be easily explained away. Apparently there was no news that unfolded at a pizza parlor or, applying the channel’s expanded definition of news, no incident in which, say, a supporter of President Biden complained about the plastic straws at a pizza parlor because of critical race theory. Either way, no reason to talk about pizza parlors.

Except that a lot of other media outlets ran the phrase “pizza parlor” in the past 24 hours, picking up on commentary that aired on Fox News. That was former president Donald Trump’s dismissal of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in an interview on “Hannity,” during which Trump suggested that the governor’s career was entirely a function of his 2018 gubernatorial endorsement.

“I got him the nomination,” Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity. “By the way: [he] couldn’t have never gotten the nomination. He would either be working in a pizza-parlor place or a law office right now.”

That’s quite a comment to make. But people perusing Fox News’s website won’t read it.

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A clip of Trump’s lengthy comments on DeSantis is available at Hannity’s page on the Fox News website, including a headline that quotes Trump’s (almost certainly untrue) claim that DeSantis came to him with “tears in his eyes” seeking his endorsement. But that same snippet of video, again as of writing, doesn’t appear on Fox News’s YouTube channel. Two other clips from Hannity’s lengthy interview are shown.

This is how it often works at Fox News. The heavy hand of the network’s executives, including executive chairman Rupert Murdoch, was articulated explicitly in internal messages produced as part of a defamation lawsuit filed by an electronic voting-machine company. But it was obvious before that. Stories like the allegations made by adult-film actress Stormy Daniels when Trump was president get buried. Fox News polling that shows good news for Biden or bad news for Trump doesn’t get highlighted.

Even when left-wing politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) appear on the network, any effect of that rhetoric is quickly blunted by critical follow-up interviews and selective clipping of the comments. The network’s politics are obvious, but so, too, are its efforts to steer viewers to specific political positions.

It’s not common, though, that Trump would be the one being steered away from. The network’s (and Murdoch’s) initial skepticism of Trump in the 2016 primaries gave way to four years of hagiography. There was a good reason for this, articulated by journalists Peter Baker and Susan Glasser in a book published last year. Trump, longtime Fox News honcho Roger Ailes believed, “was someone who connected with the Fox audience even more than Fox did.” So the network allied with Trump in an effort to placate his base.

Then he lost. Murdoch told allies a few weeks after the election that, in a month, Trump would “be becoming irrelevant.” He predicted Trump would concede. But Trump didn’t concede and, instead, stoked his base to demand fealty to Trump’s false claims about election fraud. Suddenly, Fox found itself at risk of falling victim to the imbalance that Ailes had feared. Its hosts grasped at conspiracy theories to bolster viewership — exposing the network to the aforementioned defamation lawsuit.

After the Capitol riot, Murdoch tried again.

“We want to make Trump a non person,” Murdoch wrote to another executive. It soon became apparent that, like many other Trump-skeptical Republicans, the network saw DeSantis as the best transition away from Trump: echoing the former president’s politics but without being Trump. In July 2022, a video segment produced by Fox went viral as it focused on various former Trump voters hyping DeSantis as their new favorite.

Trump’s interview with Hannity — deep enough in the tank for Trump that it probably gets lonely — was the former president’s first interview on the network in months. Hannity gave Trump the usual kid-glove treatment, helping steer the 2024 candidate away from iffy rhetoric where he could. His question about DeSantis, though, yielded an extended riff about DeSantis’s perceived disloyalty.

At the end of the segment, Trump started to list ways in which DeSantis’s politics were bad.

“He’s getting crushed now in the polls,” Trump said [falsely]. “Because he did a little thing called voting against Social Security, voting against Medicare. His numbers aren’t very good on covid—”

And then, suddenly, the clip ended and Hannity moved to commercial.

After Hannity’s show ended, host Laura Ingraham was up — and the network’s pattern of redirecting viewers to DeSantis began.

Writer Miranda Devine told Ingraham that Trump’s attacks on DeSantis in the interview and at his rally in Texas over the weekend were a break from 2016, when he was a “sunny person” who didn’t “constantly [dwell] on grievance.” The audience in Waco, Tex., she said, didn’t like the DeSantis attacks — picking up a focus of Fox News’s own coverage of the rally.

Longtime Trump aide Stephen Miller offered a furious rebuttal insisting that Trump was very policy-focused in his 2024 campaign. Ingraham was skeptical, wondering why Trump didn’t talk about this policy effort in his interview with Hannity.

On Tuesday morning, “Fox & Friends” offered similar criticism. The attacks on DeSantis were too much, co-host Brian Kilmeade suggested. Former Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz (R), now a Fox News contributor, was unsparing in his criticism of Trump’s performance.

“I thought he was horrific,” Chaffetz said. “I think that’s the worst interview I’ve seen the president do. He was whining. He was complaining. ... I thought he was absolutely horrific.”

In the background, other members of the panel discussion could be heard chuckling.

Again, this is how it works. The network — like many other news outlets, certainly — have continued to give Trump a great deal of coverage. In the past six months, Trump has been mentioned on Fox News about four times as often as has DeSantis. (Biden has been mentioned about 2½ times as often as Trump.)

But the network’s coverage of DeSantis has increased. There have been about half as many mentions of the Florida governor in the first three months of this year as were made in all of 2022 — a year when DeSantis was running for reelection.

Fox News’s position hasn’t changed dramatically since 2016, though. Its base is still fervently pro-Trump, making it risky for them to break with the former president completely — as reinforced dramatically from November 2020 to January 2021. So they guide and prod and bury and elevate as they can, hoping that their viewers once again become their own.

The effort’s not going great.